Twenty-seven years after it ceased operations in Hungary, following the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government-funded news agency Radio Free Europe returned Tuesday, prompted by a sharp drop in media freedom in the Central European country.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, or RFE/RL – funded by the U.S. government to bring independent news to countries “where a free press is banned or not fully established” – said its relaunch in Hungary had been prompted by the steep decline in media freedom under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Over the past decade, Orban – a nationalist who has been remaking Hungary in line with his vision of an “illiberal democracy” – has overseen the consolidation of the country’s media outlets under direct or indirect government control.
With public broadcasters acting as powerful government mouthpieces, and private media outlets increasingly under the control of Orban’s allies, Hungary’s media landscape has become a largely pro-government echo chamber, amplifying official narratives attacking immigration, the European Union or Orban’s top public enemy, the Hungarian-American liberal philanthropist George Soros.
Pavol Szalai, head of the EU and Balkans desk at Reporter Without Borders, told VICE News that the relaunch of RFE/RL was a positive step.
“It can contribute to media freedom in Hungary,” he said. “Media with an independent editorial policy can contribute to the quality of information in Hungary. They’re not coming to Hungary just to become a part of Orban’s media conglomerate, which is a vehicle for government propaganda.”
In the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Hungary dropped 16 points to 89th place. In July, the editor of Hungary’s last key independent news site, Index, was sacked in what its journalists said was a clear case of political interference, prompting mass resignations and protests.
“We have seen that press freedom in Hungary has deteriorated even this year,” said Szalai, referring to the demise of index.hu. “Most of the major media – radio, television, websites – are pro-government. Media pluralism has suffered.”
The relaunch of the service – which initially ran in Hungary from 1950 to 1993 as Szabad Europa Radio, operated out of Munich – is the third return by RFE/RL to an EU member state. Last year, it reopened in both Bulgaria and Romania, European Union countries which also face issues with corruption and transparency.